‘In China re­cy­cling is more an eco­nomic im­per­a­tive than an en­vi­ron­men­tal one’

The Guardian Weekly - - Discovery - Ben­jamin Haas

In the great global rush for bot­tled wa­ter, nowhere is thirstier than Asia. De­mand is pre­dicted to surge by more than 140% across the re­gion this decade, to ac­count for one-third of the global to­tal by 2020.

China leads the way. The coun­try ac­counted for 28% of the global de­mand for poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late (Pet) bot­tles in 2015. Con­sumers bought 73.8bn bot­tles of wa­ter in 2016, up more than five bil­lion on the pre­vi­ous year.

The cause is the ex­pand­ing mid­dle class and ris­ing wages across the board. A gen­er­a­tion ago, bot­tled drinks were still some­thing of a nov­elty and most Chi­nese peo­ple could re­mem­ber the first time they tasted Coca-Cola. Now chil­dren are brought up on an ar­ray of sug­ary drinks. The plas­tic bot­tle has be­come ubiq­ui­tous.

There is also a per­cep­tion that bot­tled drinks are more hy­gienic, and in the wake of a string of food safety scan­dals – tainted milk pow­der, fake eggs and con­tam­i­nated fruit – Chi­nese con­sumers be­lieve plas­tic bot­tles are less sus­cep­ti­ble to tam­per­ing.

Plas­tic presents both en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenge and eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. De­spite the in­crease in plas­tic, no ma­jor city boasts an ef­fec­tive re­cy­cling pro­gramme. In­stead China re­lies on an army of in­for­mal trash col­lec­tors. Peo­ple such as Wang Qing.

Wang never ex­pected to work in the re­cy­cling in­dus­try. She had been a farmer all her life, she mar­ried a farmer and never planned to leave the vil­lage where she was born. But then the lo­cal gov­ern­ment took her land, and she moved to Bei­jing to pe­ti­tion the au­thor­i­ties about get­ting it back.

She even­tu­ally turned to col­lect­ing plas­tic bot­tles, scour­ing trash cans across Bei­jing to sup­port her­self. Al­most a decade later, re­cy­cling plas­tic bot­tles has be­come her main source of in­come, and to­gether with her hus­band, who works as a jan­i­tor and brings home bot­tles from the build­ing he cleans, the pair make about 3,000 yuan ($440) a month on re­cy­cling alone. It is enough to rent a small room, feed them­selves and pay for ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties.

“It would have been very hard to work and at the same time pe­ti­tion the gov­ern­ment to give me back my land or com­pen­sate me fairly,” Wang said. “I’m lucky be­cause I’m in good shape and I like the ex­er­cise of walk­ing the streets.” A few times a month Wang treks out to the north­ern out­skirts of Bei­jing, to a vil­lage spe­cial­is­ing in re­cy­cling ev­ery­thing from tele­vi­sions to air con­di­tion­ers, from plas­tic to scrap metal, all stacked in tow­er­ing piles.

“In China re­cy­cling plas­tic bot­tles, and re­cy­cling in gen­eral, is much more of an eco­nomic im­per­a­tive, rather than an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­per­a­tive like it is in the west,” said Adam Min­ter, an ex­pert on the re­cy­cling in­dus­try and au­thor of Junk­yard Planet. “It’s ex­tremely rare to see plas­tic bot­tles end up in a land­fill in China, es­pe­cially given the higher price point of Pet bot­tles.”

Still, some cit­i­zens are try­ing to turn the tide be­fore too many peo­ple in China be­come ac­cus­tomed to a throw­away cul­ture. “There’s very lit­tle thought of the im­pact of plas­tic bot­tles in China,” said Mao Da, co-founder of the China Zero Waste Al­liance. “Peo­ple think about the drink in­side, not about what will hap­pen to the bot­tle after, so there needs to be more ed­u­ca­tion. With­out a gov­ern­ment pol­icy aimed at lim­it­ing sin­gle use bot­tles, it’s go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult to slow China’s plas­tic bot­tle use.”

Mao is cur­rently fo­cused on en­cour­ag­ing greater use of re­us­able daily items, such as shop­ping bags, chop­sticks and bot­tles, as well as part­ner­ing with sports events to de­crease use of plas­tic bot­tles.

The in­for­mal na­ture of China’s re­cy­cling in­dus­try means when prices are low, largely due to low oil prices, there is less in­cen­tive to re­cy­cle plas­tic bot­tles. Still many be­lieve the sys­tem suits China bet­ter than the civic-minded model touted in Europe and the US. “It’s go­ing to be re­ally tough to re­place the ef­fi­ciency of the mar­ket with a cen­trally run sys­tem of trucks,” said Richard Brubaker, founder of the Shang­hai-based sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tancy Col­lec­tive Re­spon­si­bil­ity. “In some ways the in­for­mal sys­tem is bet­ter, be­cause city em­ploy­ees are just go­ing to take what­ever is in the re­cy­clables bucket; they won’t comb through ev­ery­thing.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.